Recent research by behavioral psychologists might shed some light on why President Bush had difficulty in selling his concept of private retirement accounts as a central feature of reforming Social Security.
As you might recall, the president promoted the plan through the idea of moving to an "ownership society" and providing the opportunity of choice regarding our retirement funds.
However, according to a team of psychologists from Swarthmore and Stanford, who discussed the results of their work recently in the New York Times, Americans do not uniformly welcome more choices into their lives.
Specifically, whereas higher income, better educated individuals welcome the empowerment of more choice, working class Americans, who represent the majority of our workforce, often do not. "For them, being free is less about making choices that reflect their uniqueness and mastery and more about being left alone, with their personality, integrity and well-being intact."
When college students were asked to pick adjectives that capture what "choice" means to them, those from homes with college educated parents were more likely to select the words "freedom," "action" and "control," whereas those from homes whose parents had only a high school education more often selected "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."
Other tests that these psychologists report appear to confirm that those with more education put greater value on items that they were able to choose, whereas those with less education tend to value articles they receive the same, whether or not they chose them.
Polling on Social Security private accounts appears consistent with the general research of these psychologists on the issue of freedom and choice. According to polling done by the Pew Research Center about a year ago, 46 percent of those polled favored introduction of private Social Security retirement accounts and 38 percent were opposed to the idea.
Looking into the reasoning of those who favor private accounts, most said they favor them because "Individuals will have more control." This is twice the number who responded that they favor them because the accounts will earn more money.
Of those opposed to private accounts, most of the opposition came from those who expressed fear that the accounts would be potentially too risky.
Further examination showed breakdown that is consistent with education and income.